As part of its efforts to portray itself in a positive light, the PML-N government at the federal level, and in Punjab, has been engaged in a campaign to highlight the importance it places on education. As such, much has been made of relatively large amounts of funding that have been allocated to the Higher Education Commission, and the government has also been quick to stress its commitment to providing an increasingly large share of the budget to education over the next few years.

At one level, the government’s emphasis on education makes complete sense; there are obvious benefits that could accrue to society from investing more in education, and it is seen by many as being a panacea for all of Pakistan’s problems. It is assumed that education holds the key to developing Pakistan’s economy, lifting people out of poverty, and producing more informed citizens and voters. While all of this may be true, the almost single-minded focus on education in the popular discourse is one that often overlooks the fact that there are many other structural constraints that impede the realization of the goals listed above. Indeed, it could also be argued that absent attempts to address the broader context of inequality and political marginalization that characterizes Pakistan, increased spending on education will yield far fewer benefits than might otherwise be expected.

The problem begins with the reality of the state’s approach to education. Historically, governments in Pakistan have done little more than engage in tokenistic and symbolic attempts to reform the education sector, trumpeting their dubious ‘achievements’ while persistently presiding over abysmally low levels of spending on reforming and improving the country’s schools, colleges, and universities. Pakistan lags behind its South Asian neighbours when it comes to spending on education as a percentage of GDP, and this is a situation that is likely to continue amidst the lack of any clear governmental desire to change the status quo. The situation is compounded by several other factors; given the country’s disproportionate and arguably unnecessary expenditure on defence, there is less money available to be spent on social development and areas like education and healthcare. This has been exacerbated by Pakistan’s escalating levels of debt, with an ever greater share of the budget being set aside for debt-servicing. Furthermore, in addition to the way in which these two ‘essential’ areas of expenditure divert funds away from social development, the adherence of successive governments to the dictates of the IMF has meant an acceptance of the need to reduce the role played by the state in the Pakistani economy. Given the state’s proven inability to raise revenues through taxation, attempts to reduce the deficit focus almost entirely on reducing government spending. In a context where defence and debt-servicing are sacrosanct, austerity always falls on the public sector, subject to wholesale privatization since the late 1980s, and further reductions in government spending on healthcare, sanitation, education, and other social services.

All of this assumes, however, that if the government were to throw more money at education with the aim of addressing the capacity and infrastructural constrains faced by the sector, many of the problems plaguing the sector would be solved. Again, the reality is a bit more complicated. It is clear that the current state of affairs in Pakistan is one in which the bureaucracy, from the federal to the local level, is marred by inefficiency and large amounts of corruption and rent-seeking, all of which is made worse by the role of politicians making use of the funds at their disposal to improve their own position and engage in patronage-based politics. As a result of this, it is reasonable to assume that while increased spending on education might yield some positive outcomes, a lack of bureaucratic and political reform will ensure that much of the additional funds provided to schools and colleges will be subject to the same kinds of misappropriation and graft that has existed in the past.

At present, Pakistan has an education system that differentiates between people on the basis of wealth and class. The elite send their children to top private schools in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, the middle classes attempt to do the same, and the poor are relegated to the position of relying on a public education system that suffers tremendously from constraints in terms of resources, both material and human. For the poor, the opportunity cost of sending children to school can also be very high. As the cost of living continues to increase in Pakistan, forcing more and more families to make difficult choices when it comes to ensuring their continued survival, it is usually not possible to ensure that their children are able to continue their schooling, especially when their labour could be used to supplement a meagre household income. As the rich continue to perpetuate their privilege by ensuring their children are able to benefit from the best educational facilities available, the poor are rendered structurally incapable of using education as a means through which to lift themselves out of poverty. Indeed, as statistics from rural Pakistan clearly show, there is a clear correlation between land ownership and educational attainment; the more land you own, the more likely it is that you will send your children to school and educate them to as great an extent as possible. While it is obviously important for there to be quality schools that people can send their children to, it is also clear that wealth plays a huge role in determining a child’s educational prospects.

Finally, it is also important to pay attention to the broader ideological context of education in Pakistan. From primary school onwards, students in Pakistan are fed a diet of dogma and nationalist rhetoric while simultaneously being encouraged to engage in rote learning at the expense of critical thinking. The state curriculum in Pakistan is one that continues to foster values that militate against a spirit of inquiry and tolerance, focusing on the propagation of values that continue to provide legitimacy to the worst aspects of the popular discourse in Pakistan; a chauvinistic nationalism rooted in a parochial view of Islam, a lack of respect for ethnic and religious minorities, and a deep and abiding skepticism of science and philosophies that undermine the legitimating tropes of the political and military establishment. Even if the government were to spend more money on education in Pakistan, it is worth asking if this would be a good thing in the absence of curriculum reform aimed at reversing the ideological damage that has been done over the past thirty years.

 The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.